Sunday, December 30, 2007

Celebrities and Politics: a dilemma of image

BBC political reporter Justin Parkinson asks an interesting question: "Is taking advice from celebrities a cynical voter-pleasing ploy, with politicians merely pretending to listen? Or is it a genuine attempt to engage with the world outside politics?" Parkinson lists a variety of examples: Feargal Sharkey heading a government taskforce on promoting live music; Kirstie Allsopp advising the Conservatives making buying and selling houses less stressful; Sir Alan Sugar advising Gordon Brown on business; I can see a logic so far! Then there are some other examples: avant garde musician Brian Eno briefing Nick Clegg on "youth" issues (Eno is 60 and lives abroad, huh?); Gordon Brown discussing global education with Angelina Jolie (obviously she's an expert); and there was that Fiona Phillips offer!; logical, not really. Surely these politicians are, at some points, trying to appear cool and basking in the limelight of the rich, famous and popular.

Parkinson poses the question in light of Italian prime minister Romano Prodi's refusal to speak to the aforementioned Jolie on the basis that: "I've never heard of a politician getting in trouble by not meeting an actress"; and why should they? If a celebrity offers something of value, such as Jamie Oliver, fine; but it suggests more attempts to be part of Cool Britannia than actually learning anything useful. The real problem is when politicians try to suggest that celebrities are a bridge between them and the public. While people may view some celebrities as being representative in some symbolic way (Geldof on poverty perhaps), they are not really as authentic as is suggested. How can they be, they are even more remote from ordinary life than politicians. The value of the celebrity, they are popular and newsworthy so, except when they do offer expertise (on live music for example), there seems only one reason to get them involved: to look cool surely? Celebrities like Jolie, Bono et al are enormously valuable for getting political issues onto the news agenda and getting messages across to hard to reach audiences (the young and gossip hungry politically apathetics for example) but whether they are good at, or should be used for, getting attention for politicians is more questionable!

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